The high cost of Cambridge police records

The Cambridge Police Department has adopted a restrictive policy that would force the Cambridge Chronicle to pay more than $1,200 to obtain public records of police activity for most of July, according to a story by Chronicle reporter Erin Smith. What’s more, the policy may be in violation of the Massachusetts public-records law.

Like all Massachusetts police departments, Cambridge’s makes a bare-bones incident log freely available to members of the public; it is, in fact, online. But state law exempts police departments from having to release detailed information about incidents that are under investigation.

What is and isn’t public information, and when it must be made public, are complicated matters that I’m not going to get into here. But the law does require that the public log — also known as the police blotter — contain the “names and addresses of persons arrested and charges against such persons.”

According to the Chronicle, though:

The Cambridge Police Department already keeps a daily police log online maintained by a student intern, but over the past several months, the Chronicle noticed that previously available information — such as the ages and addresses of arrested people, the addresses where crimes occurred and the description of suspects — was being withheld from the public.

In quickly scanning through a few days’ worth of the Cambridge log, I found several examples of arrestees whose addresses (and ages) were listed. I couldn’t find any whose address was not listed. I have no reason to doubt the Chronicle’s reporting, but it’s important to point that out.

The fees are another matter. Charging $1,215 for public records is an outrageous breach of the public’s right to know. The police department’s lawyer, Kelly Downes, cites the cost of compiling and copying those records. But the standard practice with many police departments is to allow reporters to view the originals at the police station, at no cost to anyone.

Given the embarrassment over the department’s recent arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates in his own home, you’d think that everyone would be on his or her best behavior these days. Well, think again.

And by the way — we’re still waiting to hear how Sgt. James Crowley, who arrested Gates, managed to incorporate information into his report from a woman who insists she never talked with Crowley. Maybe Downes hasn’t had a chance to work out a price for that particular piece of information.

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